Tom Vickers’ Northampton Saints v Bath preview

Louis Picamoles (picture: Dave Ikin)
Louis Picamoles (picture: Dave Ikin)

Fixture: Northampton Saints v Bath (Aviva Premiership - round one)

Date and kick-off time: Saturday, September 3, 3.30pm

Venue: Franklin’s Gardens, Northampton

Saints: Foden; K Pisi, G Pisi, Burrell, Tuala; Mallinder, Dickson; A Waller, Hartley, Brookes; Lawes, Paterson; Wood (c), Gibson, Picamoles.

Replacements: Clare, Ma’afu, Hill, Dickinson, Harrison, Groom, Myler, North.

Bath: Homer, Rokoduguni, Joseph, Clark, Banahan; Ford, Fotuali’i; Catt, Batty, Thomas; Ewels, Attwood; Garvey (c), Denton, Faletau

Replacements: Dunn, Auterac, Palma-Newport, Sisi, Ellis, Cook, Priestland, Williams.

Injuries: Saints: Tom Stephenson (broken leg), Christian Day (ruptured bicep), JJ Hanrahan (ankle)

Referee: JP Doyle

Most recent meeting: Saturday, April 30: Saints 15 Bath 14 (Aviva Premiership - round 21)

Tom’s preview: Before every season you will hear bosses and players state that this will be the toughest yet.

‘No easy games’, ‘we need to be at our best every week’... you know the rest.

However, this year, there is every reason to feel those statements will ring true.

With the salary cap at its highest level to date, clubs have been able to flex their financial muscles more than ever before.

Saints’ midlands rivals, Leicester Tigers and Wasps, have taken spending particularly seriously, bringing in some real star quality.

Richard Cockerill has recruited the likes of Matt Toomua and JP Pietersen for Tigers, while Wasps’ list of backline signings is longer than one of Courtney Lawes’ legs.

Danny Cipriani, Willie Le Roux and Kurtley Beale are among the big names sent to Coventry.

And it means the battle for the midlands bragging rights will be one of the most intriguing scraps of the season.

For their part, Saints have added a rather sizeable Frenchman who goes by the name of Louis Picamoles.

The No.8 has already made a big impression on his new team-mates, even if he can’t quite speak fluent English just yet, and he will add the power needed at No.8.

That will free up Teimana Harrison ro revert to seven, his favoured position, and the back row, which also includes Tom Wood, Jamie Gibson and fit-again Calum Clark, is probably the best in the league.

And it will have to be because Saints will need all of their monster forwards to return to the top four this season.

There have been some doubts among supporters, with some fearing that their club may not get back in the play-off mix.

The strength of Saracens, the emergence of Exeter, who are now established, and the new bite of Tigers and Wasps has brought doubt.

And so has last season, which saw sporadic performances and left Franklin’s Gardens fans frustrated as their team never really got going.

But one thing you learn about Saints is never to write them off.

And when they are written off, they always come out fighting.

Many pre-season predictions have them around fifth, but they will enjoy that.

They want to be seen as outsiders, just as they were when they used the ‘Why not us?’ banner to propel them to the Premiership final in 2013.

Just as they were when they overturned a home humbling against Leinster by winning in Dublin a week later back in December, 2014.

Just as they were when they beat Tigers in the play-offs earlier that year.

Yes, Saints just love to prove people wrong, and they will be licking their lips at the fixtures that are coming their way in the formative stage of the season.

Games against Bath and Bristol will be followed by meetings with Saracens, Wasps, Exeter and Harlequins.

It is a tricky start to the season, but when you look through the fixture list there doesn’t appear to be a weak link in the league this time round.

You used to be able to rely on a London Welsh to give you a free hit, but there are none of those any more.

Saints found that out last season as they lost at Worcester Warriors, Newcastle Falcons and eventually relegated London Irish.

They simply cannot afford such slip-ups this season, and they should have learned their lessons in that regard.

They start against a Bath team who dropped like a stone last season, going from 2015 grand final runners-up to a lowly ninth.

They are in a state of flux and Saints, who are more settled than most other clubs, will hope to take early advantage.

This is Jim Mallinder’s 10th season at the helm and he insists it is the most exciting yet.

He can’t wait for Saints to test themselves against the talked-up teams and he possesses a group of players who feel they have a point to prove.

Let the games begin!

Tom’s prediction: Saints 25 Bath 20